Media Headliner: Horler, the digital pioneer, takes top Carat role

In a sign of the times, the digital guru Robert Horler steps down from Diffiniti to become Carat's new MD.

Two years ago, this would have seemed like a bolt from the blue. Even last year, it would have made a few people stop and think. Now, though, it merely seems curious that it has never happened before.

But, whatever the weather, it must be deeply satisfying to be a first - and Robert Horler is the first digital guru to step up and take a top agency job, swapping his role as the managing director at Diffiniti to become the managing director at its sister Aegis agency Carat.

True, many media specialists have reconfigured in recent times in order to "put digital at the heart of things" but, in most cases, the usual suspects have remained more or less in place as the office furniture has been rearranged around them. And where these usual suspects are concerned, we're generally talking about people with a good solid background in television or print trading.

So Horler's appointment feels very much like a generational change - confirmation (if confirmation were needed) that, with commercial television crumbling around our very ears, the media landscape, both for buyers and sellers, is henceforward going to be utterly transformed.

"Some say that timing is everything," Horler suggests. "Well, I think the timing of this is good in the sense that Carat is in pretty good shape and is well placed as an agency.

"I think the challenges we all face are very much driven by the situation the economy is in - and it's time to examine the legacy we have as regards how media agencies work. I'm able to bring a different perspective to that."

Horler's digital career began in the 90s on the commercial side at FT.com as the paper's website began to find its feet - and then he moved to another digital pioneer, this time one with a magazine heritage, at Emap.

But he really began to make his mark when he jumped the fence in 2000 to head up Carat Digital, then (as Horler now reflects ruefully) just a handful of people sitting in a corner, generally being ignored.

He built it steadily so that by 2004, when it was folded into the main Carat agency, it had 50 staff and turnover of almost £30 million.He then launched Diffiniti, which started from scratch with a staff of 13. He leaves it with 90 staff, turnover of £70 million and two of the UK's top digital advertisers, BSkyB and Aviva, among its clients.

Prospective clients, some observers say, tend to be blown away by Horler's quicksilver intelligence. He's supremely articulate and gifted with the ability of communicating difficult ideas with devastating clarity. It's clear he now plans to bring that intelligence (and a restless appetite for change) to bear on bigger structural issues.

"I have a knowledge of how you can change and innovate businesses - not least because digital changes so quickly. If you look at what happened with Carat Digital back in 2002, we had to set up a search business almost overnight," he points out.

Cynics will doubtless argue that Horler is being drafted in to sex-up the Carat offering, before a possible move by Havas to acquire the whole of the agency's parent company, Aegis Group.

After all, it worked at Vizeum - back in 2006, Aegis successfully reinvented Carat's sister agency when it parachuted in a 25-strong team of Diffiniti staff.

But Carat sources point out that the agency doesn't need that much reinvention. Horler's predecessor, Neil Jones (who was poached by News International to become the head of commercial strategy), succeeded in making Carat a far more planning-led agency - without, it goes without saying, losing its edge on the trading side. And, thanks in no small part to Horler's efforts in the past, digital is already thoroughly integrated into the communications planning process.

That, Horler argues, is a great foundation: "It's probably fair to say that Carat still retains a reputation for being aggressive on trading. But my experience at Diffiniti shows me that, given the choice, clients would want their agency to be more, rather than less, aggressive when it comes to delivering the best for them."

Mark Howe, a UK director of Google, reckons this is a great move for Carat and Aegis and for the industry generally. He says: "It throws down the gauntlet to other agencies. Everyone has talked in the past about putting digital at the heart of things but it hasn't always happened. This is a very astute appointment."

Horler acknowledges that establishing the right sort of team ethic is going to be essential. Running a business such as Diffiniti with less than 100 staff is very different to running a business of 400 people.

At Diffiniti, he could know just about everybody. "It's going to be important for me to delegate," he says. Yet it's equally clear that he has a vision and is determined to see it though. If he does, this appointment might prove to be a milestone not just for Carat, but for the media sector as a whole.

As Horler puts it: "Judge me in two or three years' time. I want to you to be able to look at Carat and say that it's really driving this market in terms of delivering innovative solutions and is taking a lead in all aspects of the way we approach this business."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 40
Lives: Maida Vale
Family: Partner and son, aged six
Favourite gadget: Sky+
Interest outside work: Most sports, especially football and cricket -
plus diving, snowboarding and sleeping
Last book read: The Damned United by David Peace
Most treasured possession: My life
Motto: You are only as good as the last thing you did

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